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Sir John Smyth, Bt
Drawing of Lieut. Smyth's VC action, from The War Illustrated, August 1915.
Born (1893-10-25)October 25, 1893
Died April 26, 1983(1983-04-26) (aged 89)
Place of birth Teignmouth, Devon
Place of death Marylebone, London
Buried at Golders Green Cemetery
Allegiance  United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
 British India
Service/branch  British Army
 British Indian Army
Years of service 1912 - 1942
Rank Major General
Commands held 127th Infantry Brigade
36th Indian Infantry Brigade
19th Indian Infantry Division
17th Indian Infantry Division
Battles/wars First World War
Third Anglo-Afghan War
Waziristan Campaign
1935 Mohmand Campaign
Second World War
Awards Victoria Cross
Military Cross
MID (6 times)
Cross of St. George (Russia)
Other work Privy Councillor
Member of Parliament

Brigadier Sir John George Smyth, 1st Baronet, VC MC PC (25 October 1893 – 26 April 1983) was a British Indian Army officer and Conservative Member of Parliament. Although a recipient of the Victoria Cross, his army career ended in controversy.

Early life and army career

"Jackie" Smyth was educated at Dragon School, Repton and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was 21 years old, and a lieutenant in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian Army during the First World War.

In June 1915 Smyth was awarded the Victoria Cross, the United Kingdom's highest award for bravery in combat. The citation for this award, published in the London Gazette read:[1]

For most conspicuous bravery near Richebourg L'Avoue on 18 May 1915. With a bombing party of 10 men, who voluntarily undertook this duty, he conveyed a supply of 96 bombs to within 20 yards of the enemy's position over exceptionally dangerous ground, after the attempts of two other parties had failed. Lieutenant Smyth succeeded in taking the bombs to the desired position with the aid of two of his men (the other eight having been killed or wounded), and to effect his purpose he had to swim a stream, being exposed the whole time to howitzer, shrapnel, machine-gun and rifle fire.

During the First World War he was also awarded the Russian Order of St. George Fourth Class.[2]

In September 1920, when brigade major in the 43rd Indian Infantry Brigade, Smyth was awarded the MC for distinguished service in the field in Waziristan. The citation for this award, published in the London Gazette, read:[3]

For gallantry and initiative at Khajuri, Tochi Valley, on the 22nd October, 1919, when, having been sent forward from Idak to clear up the situation, his quick appreciation, dispositions and leadership averted a serious disaster and contributed largely towards the saving of a valuable convoy attacked by the enemy. He showed great gallantry under heavy fire, inspired his command, and brought the convoy safely to Idak.

In 1923, while serving in India, Smyth played two first-class cricket matches for the Europeans team.

An early appointment as an instructor at the Staff College in Camberley in 1930 indicated that Smyth's career was on the fast track. He managed to persuade the CIGS to give him an undertaking that he would be given a brigade to command in the UK should hostilities break out. Having managed to engineer leave from India to the UK in summer 1939, he called in his debt but was disappointed to be seconded to a UK-based staff job.[4]

Second World War

In February 1940, after further lobbying, Smyth was appointed to command the 127th Infantry Brigade which from April he led in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. After evacuation from Dunkirk, he continued to command the brigade in Britain until he was summoned to return to India in March 1941.[5] After briefly commanding Indian 36th Infantry brigade in Quetta and a period of sick leave, Smyth took command of Indian 19th Infantry Division as an acting major-general in October but was re-assigned to command Indian 17th Infantry Division in December. Controversy surrounds his handling of 17th Indian Division in February 1942 during its retreat across the Sittang river in Burma. It was said that he failed to expedite a strong bridgehead on the enemy's side of the river and was forced, when it came under threat from the Japanese, to order the blowing of the bridge while two-thirds of his division were still on the far side with no other means of crossing the river and therefore dooming them. 17th Division were the only formation standing between the Japanese and Rangoon and this loss therefore led directly to the loss of Rangoon and Lower Burma. The Commander-in-Chief, India, General Sir Archibald Wavell was furious and sacked Smyth on the spot. Smyth received no further posts and returned to the United Kingdom to retire with a substantive rank of colonel and honorary rank of brigadier.[6] It took 16 years and revision of the Official History before his version of the affair versus that of General Hutton, his corps commander, was clarified. Smyth's book 'Milestones' 1979 gives his version in which he relates that he had made representations to General Hutton 10 days previously recommending a withdrawal to the West bank of the Sittang River thus permitting a strong defence line to be established. His recommendation was refused.[7]

Post war career

Sir John Smyth VC c.1973

Smyth went into politics and stood unsuccessfully against Ernest Bevin in Wandsworth at the 1945 general election. At the 1950 election, he defeated the sitting Labour MP for UK Parliament constituency. He was made a baronet 23 January 1956 with the style Sir John George Smyth, VC, MC, 1st Baronet Smyth of Teignmouth in the County of Devon[8] and a Privy Counsellor in 1962.[9]

Smyth was also an author, a playwright, a journalist and a broadcaster. His two brothers were distinguished soldiers, one of whom also became a brigadier. He married twice: firstly Margaret Dundas on 22 July 1920, later dissolved, with whom he had three sons and a daughter; and then Frances Read on 12 April 1940. One of his sons, Capt. John Lawrence Smyth, 1st Battalion, The Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey), was killed on 7 May 1944, during the first attack on Jail Hill at the Battle of Kohima.

Smyth was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum.


  1. "No. 29210". 29 June 1915. 
  2. "No. 29275". 24 August 1915. 
  3. "No. 32064". 24 September 1920. 
  4. Mead (2007), p. 430
  5. Mead (2007), pp. 430–431
  6. Mead (2007), p. 433
  7. History Of The Second World War (encyclopedic magazine), p. 876
  8. "No. 40695". 27 January 1956. 
  9. "No. 42683". 25 May 1962. 



  • Leadership in War, 1939–45; Generals in Victory and Defeat
  • Leadership in battle 1914-1918 : commanders in action
  • Story of the George Cross
  • The Game's the Same
  • Victoria Cross 1856-1964
  • The Only Enemy
  • Paradise Island
  • Trouble in Paradise
  • Ann Goes Hunting

External links


Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Ronald Arthur Chamberlain
Member of Parliament for Norwood
Succeeded by
John Fraser
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Teignmouth)
Succeeded by
Timothy John Smyth

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